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Welcome to the Chicago Newsroom home page and archive.

At Chicago Newsroom, we like to talk about the week’s local news and about local journalism.

We invite reporters, historians, activists, academicians and newsmakers -and pretty much anyone with an interesting story to tell – sit at the table with us. We think of our show as a conversation about this week’s Chicago.

Chicago Newsroom is produced at CAN TV, and runs on CAN TV 27 at 6:00 PM every Thursday night, with rebroadcasts at 9:00 AM the following Friday, 6 PM the following Saturday and 9:00 AM on Sunday. 

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Here’s the complete archive of Chicago Newsroom. The show began in September, 2010, and you can watch every show by scrolling down to it and hitting Play.

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CN April 12 2018

Chris Fusco, Editor-in-Chief of the Chicago Sun-Times, is our guest this week. Fusco talks about the extraordinary challenges the Sun-Times and other media face in a market that’s only becoming more competitive.

As newspaper, magazine and broadcast companies find themselves going after a shrinking pool of advertising revenue, the race is on for innovative ways to expand audience and improve the effectiveness of their digital products.

But the new company controlling the Sun-Times is fighting back strongly with a fresh digital presence, new video and audio podcasts, a re-designed print product, expanded staffing and an aggressive marketing program, all released on March 28.

You can watch the video by clicking the image above.

You can listen to the audio on Soundcloud.

And you can read the full transcript HERE: CN transcript April 12 2018

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CN April 5 2018

 

Chicago Police Board chair Lori Lightfoot is our guest this week.

Lightfoot is especially good at explaining complicated processes, such as the quest for a consent decree, agreed upon by the Mayor’s office, an assembly of powerful community groups, the ACLU, the Police Department and the Illinois Attorney General. And they have to do it before September. But she’s confident it can be done, and that the consent decree will lead the way to significant, sustainable reforms to our police department.

She also explains, in  great detail, the process of sorting out who’s accountable for the horrific shooting of Quintonio LeGrier and his neighbor Bettie Jones. They were killed by CPD officer Robert Rialmo, and the Civilian Office of Police Accountability found that Rialmo should be fired. The police superintendent reviewed the case and came to the opposite  conclusion. That opens multiple new layers of process, including possible new hearings before Lightfoot’s Board. Lightfoot tells us that she’s very disturbed with the leaks of documents to the media, including Supt. Johnson’s confidential memo to COPA. The public scrutiny of the documents long before anything was final has corrupted  and “delegitimized” the process, she tells us.

And the $95 million police training academy Rahm Emanuel has proposed for the far west side near Cicero and Roosevelt gets thumbs down from Lightfoot, despite her assertion that Chicago really needs a new training academy. “I just think putting this facility in one of the poorest neighborhoods of the City without having that community support and involvement and engagement, not having it be part of a larger economic development plan for that neighborhood, it’s just wrong-headed and frankly tone deaf,” she tells us.

If you care about police-community relations, and if, like Lightfoot, you have confidence that real reforms can be brought to the police department, you really should give this show a listen.

You can watch it by clicking the photo above

You can listen the the show in your earbuds HERE.

and you can read a full transcript HERE: cn transcript april 5 2018

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CN March 29 2018

The massive shredders and processors that tear apart cars and refrigerators and scrap metal at Clybourn and Webster seem out of place in today’s rapidly gentrifying North Branch, but only a few years ago the entire region – known as an industrial corridor – was filled with factories, steel mills, tanneries and similar businesses.

There’s another part of Chicago that’s also left with massive ghosts of an industrial past, but there aren’t any fancy developers moving in with office towers and river-edge parks. It’s the area of South Chicago where so much of Chicago’s steel legacy was forged, and unfortunately for the people still living there a lot of the toxic residue still remains.

That’s where we begin today’s discussion with Michael Hawthorne, investigative reporter for the Chicago Tribune, who writes mostly about environmental issues.

Manganese has been in the news this week as the City passed new zoning regulations prohibiting the outdoor storage of the material in City limits. It all began more than year ago when the city got involved with the huge controversy about petroleum coke, a dusty by-product of petroleum refining that was being stored in the tenth ward along the Calumet River. It took a long time, but the residents nearby got the city involved and eventually outlawed the storage of petcoke in outdoor yards. But along the way activists discovered a different company, S.H. Bell, storing manganese, which is a known neuro-toxin, and they wanted monitors put up around the yards.

“And that led to a big back and forth in federal court,” Hawthorne begins, “where S. H. Bell said we don’t want to put our own air monitors up around the facility. The federal judge said if you have nothing to hide basically why don’t you just allow this, ordered the monitors. They’ve been in place now I think for a little more than a year and they found high levels of manganese coming from that facility. So S. H. Bell is in negotiations with the federal government to resolve those issues.”

“There’s been a lot of research done around that facility,” Hawthorne adds, “and they’ve found that exposure to manganese can cause problems like learning and memory that there are detectable problems with kids learning and doing well on standardized tests, and other ways that they measure cognitive abilities in children, the kids who are exposed to this manganese are more likely to have those problems. The question now is are we seeing the same thing in Chicago.”

“The City of Chicago  piggy-backed on to what the federal government was doing,” he tells us, “and had their own clamp down on S. H. Bell. And the idea is at the beginning of this year S. H. Bell came back and said we’re going to stop storing manganese outside, so to kind of cut back on it blowing into the neighborhood.”

But the activists want another step. They want assurances that storage and shipping terminals like S.H. Bell can’t start up new facilities in there neighborhood in the future.

“The steel-making jobs are long gone from that neighborhood and what are they left with?” Hawthorne asks. “They are left with a lot of service industries and also kind of these like holdover legacy companies long the Calumet River, and the fear is is the rest of the City gentrifies, for example…that all of that dirty industry is eventually going to move and be concentrated back on the southeast side and that they will be disproportionately affected by pollution once again, which is what they were back in the day. But at least then they had a lot of jobs.”

Michael Hawthorne wrote recently about the Deep Tunnel. Specifically, he was addressing the McCook Reservoir, which only came on line in the last few months. Connected to the massive tunnels that run for miles under Chicago’s major rivers, the system is now capable of temporarily storing just over five billion gallons of sewage and rain water. It’s been the dream of water engineers for over 40 years.

But on February 20, the first big test – it filled to capacity in about 20 hours.

“It’s amazing and it says a lot about essentially what we’ve done to our natural environment,” he asserts.

So much rain fell on that day that when combined with the snow already on the ground, the system filled and went several million gallons beyond its capacity, requiring spills into rivers and the lake.

What’s remarkable about the past 50 years is that Chicago’s population, which hasn’t increased dramatically, has spread out. “And we’ve paved over a lot more of the metropolitan area since then,” Hawthorne explains, “and remember, we built this metropolitan area on a swamp. It’s flat. It doesn’t drain very well. What was the natural Chicago River was this sluggish prairie stream that really didn’t drain much. We live in wetlands, essentially.”

So, despite the construction of this gargantuan underground bucket that might have been adequate for the year it was conceived, by the time it has come into almost-full operation, it’s not adequate for today’s stormwater runoff. (There is, however, a final reservoir in the works, which will double the capacity to just over ten million gallons, but because it’s going to replace  a currently-working quarry, it won’t be available for about ten tears.)

So, Hawthorne explains, the big question is – what happens now?

“One of the ways that climate change affects our part of the world is we are either going to have periods of dry weather or really intense wet weather, and that’s kind of what we’ve been getting since 2008,” he says. “In Chicago alone. We’ve had some of the worst storms in recorded history, and in each one of those storms the tunnels itself, the tunnels were quickly overwhelmed. And that means that all of that runoff ends up going out into our source of drinking water in Lake Michigan. And that’s what this entire project was built to prevent from happening.”

Hawthorne says there’s a huge conversation underway about getting the Water Reclamation District busy with lots of smaller projects to disconnect roof downspouts from the sewers, install permeable parking surfaces, roof gardens and rain gardens to soak up and “use” the rain where it falls rather than move it around and mechanically process it. That benefits everyone. But thousands of smaller, custom installations can be complicated to build, and we’re in a race against time if we want to prevent  the hundreds of basements that flooded back in February from happening again and again.

On today’s show we also talk about the Foxconn plant soon to debut just north of Illinois in Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin, and about Cathy Stepp, who has been installed as the Region 5 EPA Director here in Chicago. The two stories are intricately tied together.

“Foxconn is this large Taiwanese-based company. They make flat screens and other electronics. They are a major supplier to Apple, and there was a huge sweepstakes to build a new factory, and Wisconsin won.”

And Cathy Stepp?

“Well, Hawthorne begins, “She was a state senator in Wisconsin on the farther right end of the spectrum. She and her husband owned a small home building company before that. She actually represented the area where the Foxconn plant is going to be located when she was in the state legislature. And Walker then named her, Scott Walker, the Governor of Wisconsin named her as the head of the Department of Natural Resources.”

She quickly distinguished herself in the office.

“She was known for a number of things. Number one, enforcement of environmental laws dropped significantly on her watch. She did other things for example, cut funding for scientific research at the department. And then some kind of small-scale things, but they are big too, especially the far right causes which are scrubbing any reference to climate change from official documents. So she was a polarizing figure. She later was a big advocate for Donald Trump in Wisconsin when he was running for President. She seems to be inline with kind of the same forces that are behind Scott Pruitt, who as Trump’s EPA administrator, was the former Attorney General of Oklahoma and was known for suing the agency that he now leads to try to undo clean air and clean water regulations.”

So how has she distinguished herself as the new EPA Administrator that oversees federal environmental actions across five states?

“Not much actually. She doesn’t come to the phone. To my knowledge she hasn’t made any public appearances outside of the EPA offices,” Hawthorne reports.

“We do know on the Foxconn issue related to air pollution in Wisconsin there’s a big decision coming up that Pruitt and the Trump administration has delayed on a tighter standard for smog, ground level ozone, which can cause all kinds of health problems, mostly lung problems and eventually heart disease. The feds have already missed a deadline to tighten the standard and say where the different areas of the country are and what in EPA speak is called non-attainment. Basically they don’t meet the standard, and that means that sources of pollution in those areas need to do more to reduce pollution.

“One of the areas, one of the dirtiest areas, at least according to monitoring data in Wisconsin is the county where Foxconn wants to locate, and if the standard is tightened to where it should be under the law Foxconn and other factories in that area are going to have to spend a lot more money on pollution control equipment, or they are going to have to find credits from other facilities, credits that are very difficult to find, or they are going to have to scale back production so they’re not polluting as much. So it’s a big issue for not just Foxconn, but for a lot of companies.

“Stepp is in a unique position to potentially affect that. She was on a lot of letters when she was at the State of Wisconsin urging the federal government to back off and stick with the standard that was adopted during the George W. Bush administration. Her immediate predecessor at the Chicago office wrote a letter to Stepp and to Governor Walker last year saying this is what the science says. This is what your own data says. You are going to need to do more. By the way, Chicago is going to have to do more too…Stepp has said that she’s recusing herself from any involvement in that issue, but it should be noted that Scott Pruitt, her boss, one of the cases he filed against the EPA when he was Oklahoma Attorney General was to try to block this smog standard from taking effect. So it’s led to some very interesting legal battles in Washington. Pruitt already backed down. He was going to try to delay the standards from taking effect for at least a year, was sued, and immediately backed down. Now they are talking about setting the final designation of areas that are in non-attainment or in violation with the standard in April. So it will be interesting to see what kind of wrangling goes on from now until then.”

You can listen to this show on SoundCloud here

You can read a full transcript of he conversation here:CN transcript March 29 2018

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CN March 22 2018

Not that many people voted in Tuesday’s Illinois primary – about a couple of million statewide – but they made some very important decisions, including throwing out Joe Berrios, the powerful, connected Cook County Assessor, and unseating two of Toni Preckwinkle’s loudest critics on the soda tax issue, Richard Boykin and John Fritchey.

Three powerhouse political reporters on today’s panel. They are Tahman Bradley of WGN-TV, Chicago Magazine’s Carol Felsenthal and WBEZ’s Dave McKinney. Watch (or listen) while it’s still fresh. Chuy Garcia had a very special night, which not only launched him into Congress, but also made him something of a kingmaker in Chicago, where he could threaten the Burke dynasty, and possibly even Mike Madigan sometime in the future. Brandon Johnson’s narrow victory over Richard Boykin, Pat Quinn’s loss to Kwame Raoul for Attorney General despite winning all of Illinois, except Chicago and the Collars, and what’s next for Sharon Fairley, Marie Newman and Andrea Raila?

And, yes, the man who says, “we don’t have to live like this.” Ladies and Gentlemen, Garry McCarthy has entered the room.

Listen to the audio of this show on SoundCloud:

 

 

 

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CN March 15 2018

 

Remember when Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley was quoted, exclaiming at a closed session of the Cook County Democratic Central Committee, “If a man can’t put his arms around his son, then what kind of world are we living in? I make no apologies. If I can’t help my son, (my critics) can kiss my ass.”

Do you remember what he was talking about? Well, it’s all in Dick Simpson’s new book The Good Fight.

“I introduced a Council resolution,” Simpson writes, ”ordering Daley to account as to ‘whether he has unlawfully used his influence as Mayor [for his sons] to receive undue preference.’ It was defeated 35-7″. It all had to do with Daley sending a no-bid contact for city insurance to the very company where one of his sons worked.

A year or so earlier, when he had just arrived on the Council, but had already been teaching at UIC for about 5 years, Simpson drew the battle lines quite starkly.

Complaining about 31st Ward Alderman Tom Keane attempting to put his son into a fairly obscure post as head of the Zoning Board of Appeals, he pointed out that Keane Jr was Vice President at Arthur Rubloff, at that time the most powerful real estate venture in the city. Keane was so connected he was often said to be second only to Daley in political influence. Daley didn’t like what this new kid was trying to do, and he exploded at the rostrum.

“The idea that I made this appointment because a man’s name was Keane and he was the son of a famous member of this council!” he exclaimed. “I made this appointment because I have known Tommy Keane, the boy I appointed since he’s been a baby… Should that boy be told… that he shouldn’t hold office because his name is Keane?”

Then turning to Simpson’s academic background, he went on. “Where are we going with these kind of educators? You are doing this to the young people of our country! And (Simpson) is not the only one. He’s typical of the large number (of professors) in universities polluting the minds of the young people… Frankly if you’re a teacher, God help the students that are in your class, if this is what is being taught.”

“Well,” Simpson tells us, “The biggest fun thing people don’t know is the Sears Tower is built over what used to be an alley that Tom Keane Sr managed to get as his law fee for condemning the street and allowing the Sears Tower to be built. That’s one of the reasons he went to jail for as long as he did. The Sears Tower wouldn’t exist if… I mean the Sears Tower is a good thing on the whole, but they could have done it legally. They wouldn’t have to bribe the head of the City Council.”

That’s how we began our conversation about Simpson’s sixty-plus years in public service, 51 of them at UIC as professor of political science. “Yes,” he says, “I’m still a teacher and I still do these weird things like try and engage students in more than just dull lectures.”

Key among them is instilling an interest in activism. And that starts with voting.

“We also have added by different registration techniques,” he explains, “an effort that has now yielded thousands of new student voters, more than ever before. We increased the voting at UIC – in 2012 42% of our students voted, in 2016 55% of our students vote. We had the largest increase of any university in the country of registrations and additional voting in 2016.”

Simpson’s political and personal life began in Texas, where he was active in the struggle for racial equality in the 1950s. He also spent time in Africa working  on his doctoral dissertation. He arrived in Chicago in 1967 during the red-hot political events that would lead to the riots at the Democratic convention.

Then in 1971 he decided that he wanted to run for office, and he successfully won the 44th Ward aldermanic seat. “We were fighting over what should Chicago become,” he declares. “And so that’s why what would be a normal clash about somebody’s appointment was really a clash about patronage and nepotism and the rotten aspects of the Chicago machine.”

He told his supporters that, if elected, he’d institute a new way of thinking about aldermanic service. “We really thought citizens should be able to have a voice in the decisions that most affect lives,” he tells us. “If you think about Trump or you think Emanuel today or you think about Rauner as Governor, I mean none of them pay any attention to what the hell citizens want.”

Once in office, he announced that he’d vote the way Lakeview needed him to vote, not the way the mayor needed him to vote. That neighborhood-based government would direct his voting. “It sounded a lot like the SDS Port Huron Statement,” he laughs.

As alderman, and in the many years after he left office in 1979, Simpson was engaged in some of he most significant battles  of our time. One of them was the legal fight to dismantle the Chicago Police Red Squad, which he says was founded in the 1930’s, “just to keep track of all the commies, that is labor union organizers and the like.”

The Red Squad, Simpson claims, was monitoring at least “20 different civic organizations and 20 or so major public officials.”

He had first-hand experience with the agency.

“The Red Squad would spy on us, and they would do more than just spy in the sense of sit and take notes, they did that, but they actually were agent provocateurs,” he claims.  “They broke up an attempt we did to try and elect officials to county government as independents. We were meeting on the west side in a basement and one of the red squad agents got so provocative that the whole coalition fell apart, we couldn’t put together the ticket.”

“And so we sued them and we won the case,” he explains. “There were reparations paid to the organizations and the individuals.” In fact, more than $300,000 – a huge amount of money for the time. “The individuals, a group of us got together and set up a fund at the Crossroads Fund and then funded other civil liberties efforts for a decade to come.”

Simpson was also a significant player in the effort to defeat patronage. Michael Shakman, he explains, attempted to win a seat as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1970 that would re-write the Illinois Constitution. But he lost.

“He sued in federal court saying that the reason he didn’t get it was the patronage workers were working against him and that this took away both rights of candidates and citizens” he tells us. “But critical to this case it also took away the rights of the patronage worker. If you were a patronage worker you had to work for your sponsor or the party. And it took a long time for this to go. I mean we’re talking 1971 it all started. By the middle 70s it had worked its way through the first stage and the first Shakman Decree said you couldn’t, I have to get it right, you couldn’t fire workers for not working in a campaign. The second Shakman Decree said you couldn’t hire people because they had worked on a campaign”

And he was instrumental in another major political battle with huge consequences. “I was an expert witness in all of the gerrymandering cases which we’ve gotten very familiar with gerrymandering now, but all the wards were gerrymandered and they were gerrymandered to disadvantage the minority groups, to keep the number of black aldermen down. To keep the number of Latino aldermen almost nothing.”

A major consequence of this battle was that Simpson and his allies successfully won an order to re-district the City Council in the mid-80s, requiring a re-map that gave minorities a greater opportunity to hold Council seats. The effort was so successful that the new Council roster gave Harold Washington control of the Council for the first time, ending “Council Wars”.

The Good Fight is unusual for a political memoir in that it deals openly and frankly with Dick Simpson’s personal life. He describes his three marriages, his contemplation of suicide and his failure to balance his public life and his private life. He also takes us inside his time as an ordained minister.

“I don’t think a memoir can be written unless you write the truth,” he proclaims. “Sometimes you can shield some other people and maybe not tell the whole story that affects their life, but for your own life you have to, I think, be truthful. If it isn’t, people will instantly recognize it’s just all fluff. The second thing is I think the struggle between personal and outer life, interior and external, is a struggle that’s not just a politician’s struggle. I think a lot of people have it that whatever their job, whatever work they do.”

As we conclude, we ask Simpson, the lifelong activist, how he feels when he watches the student leaders of the gun resistance after the Florida massacre.

“It’s a great new movement,” he enthuses. “It’s allowing students to speak out. If they speak out now they will do that the rest of their lives. If they don’t win an early victory that may or may not be as important as the fact that they learn how to fight.”

 

Watch the entire show on YouTube here.

And you can listen to the audio of today’s show on SoundCloud here.

And why not subscribe to our podcast at iTunes, so it’ll download to your favorite device each week? (Tap “View in i-Tunes,” then tap “subscribe.”)

Also, read a full transcript of the show here: CNtranscript March 15 2018

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CN March 8 2018

 

So how was your commute today? Quick run downtown on the Red line? Gliding into the Loop from Arlington Heights or Bolingbrook on the Metra? A Pace bus from Skokie, a crosstown CTA bus, or maybe paratransit?

Oh, you drove in and parked – or you’re one of the cool kids who started work early on your iPad pro in the back seat of an Uber?

Well, here’s one thing we all have in common. In some way or another, the policies and practices of the Regional Transportation Authority had a direct impact on how you got to work or school today. The RTA’s been around for a while now – created in 1974 – and it has had some successes. But, hey, it’s in the public transit business, so very few politicians are willing to spend tax dollars to replace imploding trackbeds and decrepit stations – so progress is slow.

In fact, in the most recent RTA assessment, they need 1.6 billion a year for the next ten years just to keep up with normal replacement of vehicles, tracks and buildings, but they already have about a 20 billion dollar backlog in projects that never got funded. The state has pretty much run away from transit funding altogether in the past few years, and let’s not even get into what’s happening with the Trump administration, which seems like it’s pretty much wiped out federal support for transit in its ballyhooed infrastructure plan.

So today, we’ve invited the guy who runs the RTA to come sit with us and answer the question, why would anybody want this job anyway?
Kirk Dillard ran twice for Governor and missed winning the Republican Primary in 2010 by a little less than 200 votes. And in 2016 by about one voter per precinct. He still thinks he could’ve beat Pat Quinn in 2010, and who knows what would’ve happened if he beat Bruce Rauner in the ’14 primary?
Dillard went on to run the RTA later in 2014 and he’s been there ever since.
Dillard’s in an interesting position today. His state’s governor, and his president, are both Republicans. But he finds himself in disagreement with their transit policies. “Whether it’s Governor Rauner or President Trump, they need to understand that where transit goes the economy grows,” he declares. “It’s been proven time and time again, and governors of other states clearly understand it because they are putting substantial amounts of money (into public transit), especially as we have millennials and the generation of Uber and Lyft and the Divvy bicycles, it’s a different way that they travel.”
“The President has essentially flipflopped the traditional role of mass transit,” he continues. “It used to be an 80/20 split where we would have a 20% effort locally and the federal government will do 80. He’s flipped it upside down. If the President were sitting here where you are, Ken I would say, President Trump, how do you think for your properties in New York City or Trump Tower in Chicago, how do you think most of your employees  get to work? Whether it’s the custodians or the concierge, or your bellmen, or your maid service, they take the CTA…”

Dillard’s RTA wants to be thinking about big-picture projects for the future. But expansion projects and additional services have to wait, because unfunded maintenance is the highest priority. “We have an overall capital backlog of probably $20-billion,” he tells us. “And you’re talking about the President’s plan. He’s talking…Just to give you something to gauge the size or lack of size of the President’s plan, the President wants to have a $200-billion of federal money program. Our state of good repair needs just in Chicago is $20-billion, so we could eat up one-tenth of the President’s infrastructure plan all by ourselves.”  And New York’s backlog, he adds, is more than $100 billion, so that’s half.

“One-third of all of our assets in this area are essentially beyond their useful life,” he laments. “And our mechanics do a great job. Our system is safe. We don’t do anything that compromises safety. But the older our system gets the more expensive it is to maintain. I ride in in a car on the Burlington Northern Sante Fe Metra line that was delivered when Dwight Eisenhower was President.”

The RTA is getting squeezed from every direction. It’s not just that state and federal sources are drastically reducing their investment in equipment replacement and major renovations. The day-to-day operational funding is dropping, too.

“40% of the monies come from the riders themselves,” he explains. “Another 40% comes from the sales tax, which has been impacted by all of us buying products online. We don’t get quite the sales tax revenue that we probably think we should, and then another 20% is really supposed to come from the federal government and the state.”

“But for the first time in the history of the State, and it’s not only the RTA, it affects municipalities, the State is taking 2% of all the sales taxes that are raised in the metropolitan six-county area which the RTA is under,” he explains. “The State now takes 2% of all the sales taxes, ships it off to Springfield for the bureaucrats in Springfield to administer, so that’s a huge cut. Over a couple of year period that’s $40-million to the ridership of Metra, Pace in the CTA.”

“The state, though, has been really almost a deadbeat with respect to funding the Regional Transportation System in Illinois,” he asserts.

Gas taxes also play a part in RTA funding, but a very small part. “What we give from our gas tax to infrastructure is among the ten lowest in the United States of America,” Dillard claims. “Our gas tax has not been changed. I was Governor’s Edgar’s Chief of Staff, it hasn’t been changed since about 1990. It’s not adjusted for inflation. It is just a gallonage tax, so the buying power of the State of Illinois gas tax today is about half the 55% of what it was when it was last touched back in 1990.”

“(Indiana) and Iowa just increased its gas tax,” he tells us. “Conservative Nebraska just increased its gas tax. And one of my biggest fears, I lie in bed at night worried that even though it may be paltry, when it’s time for our State to match what we need to match from Washington for important projects like the Red Line modernization, we’re not going to be ready to go. I was on a panel in Washington recently with someone from the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce and my counterpart from Phoenix who said, – ‘We have our federal match all ready to go. You guys haven’t even in Illinois done an infrastructure bill in a decade. We can’t wait to take your Illinois taxpayers’ money to use for projects in Indianapolis or in Phoenix.’ It’s political malfeasance to leave monies laying on the table, and these are yours and my monies, Illinoisans’ monies that go to Washington and get redistributed. We at least ought to get our own federal tax dollars back to the State, but you’ve got to have the match out of Springfield to match it.”

 

“We have, our grandparents, my parents’ generation have built what I believe is the best mass transit system in America, and we shouldn’t be the first generation that just lets it slide,” Kirk Dillard concludes. “I guarantee you 20 years from now CTA, Metra and Pace will continue to be the primary mode of the safest and fastest transportation in a population like we have. We move 2-million people a day. One-sixth of Illinois takes the RTA system every day. That’s an amazing number.”

Read a transcript of the entire conversation here:CN transcript March 8 2018

Listen to the show here on SoundCloud. 

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CN March 1 2018

Thousands of people in and around Chicago are signed up for Deferred Action for  Childhood Arrival, or DACA.  But with President Trump’s insistence that he can’t support the program’s continuation without a number of concessions, the program has become a nightmare of bureaucracy and uncertainty for its participants.

On this show, we talk with three experts who’ve devoted their professional lives to helping DACA recipients navigate the program’s pitfalls.

Our guests are:

Laura Mendoza, the Resurrection Project

theresurectionproject.org    (312) 666 3062 and on Facebook at The Resurrection project 

 

Ruth Lopez-McCarthy, the National Immigrant Justice Center

immigrantjustice.org     (312) 660-1370

 

Fred Tsao, the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights

icirr.org    (312) 332 7360

 

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CN Feb 22 2018

Three great friends, who haven’t been on the show for a while, visit to kick around the week’s news.

The students of Douglas High School in Florida have captured our attention, especially after last night’s CNN Town Hall. There’s also Janice Jackson, our new CPS CEO. and the decision not to close those four Englewood high schools all at once. Donald Trump’s fascinating infrastructure plan, which proposes building 1.5 trillion dollars’ worth of roads, bridges, tunnels and airports, without actually having any money on the table.  And Block Club Chicago, the newest effort to build a self-sustaining local news journalism site.

To help us sort it out – we have WBEZ’s Sarah Karp, Chicago Public Square’s Charlie Meyerson and NPR’s David Schaper.

“I was in Newtown, Connecticut after the shooting at Sandy Hook,” Schaper begins. “and what struck me—and I’m actually getting goose bumps just thinking about it—is the profound silence in that community. The people were just so devastated. People couldn’t put their thoughts to words in… I mean, there were people out there that were speaking, but there was just this overall sense of just devastation and of loss, and a profound sadness. And as a result, I don’t think that the message got out as well and wasn’t carried as well…families retrench, schools retrench, kids pull together and we’re constantly told, you know, stop putting a microphone in my face. Go away, let us grieve, let us grieve, let us deal with this in our own way. And you want to respect that. But at the same time I think in a lot of incidents in previous times maybe some people haven’t taken advantage of the spotlight that they had until it was too late.”

There’s an irony in the fact that Donald Trump appears more distant, and less empathetic than previous presidents, and we wonder if that has contributed to this sudden, surprising activism. “This is one of so many unanticipated consequences of the Trump presidency.,” Meyerson asserts. “It is in many ways an empowered population of civilians and voters. People are more engaged at all levels and in all political orientations in the process than I think surely would have happened had Hillary Clinton won the election.”

“And,” Karp adds, “I think that there have been Chicago Public School students who have been speaking out about gang violence and gun violence in their neighborhoods and have been trying to capture an audience in the way that these kids have. And I kind of wonder if there’s any sadness or frustration on their part that they haven’t gotten the same attention when Hadiya Pendleton was killed.”

Social media, Schaper says, is a major factor, and it’s paying a huge role in the current debates over countless social issues.

“I think the immigration issue is another issue,” he claims, “that, for a lot of people in urban areas and suburban areas are having a much more sympathetic view towards those who are coming to this country without documentation because they’re knowing them, they’re seeing them, and they’re seeing how their kids interact with their kids. And it’s changing the dynamic. And this is another issue where, again, the kids are leading and the adults are following.”

We ask Sarah Karp about Janice Jackson. She appears to be popular with parents and politicians alike, and she’s been able to perform a couple of policy reversals, such as the decision not to immediately close the four Englewood-area high schools, as had been announced.

“You don’t get to the top by not being a person that can compromise, that can make decisions, and that can maintain sort of a distance from sort of being too friendly with people, or too much of somebody’s person,” Karp explains. “So I will say that that is impressive about her. Even being chief education officer, she was basically No. 2 to Forrest Claypool. She didn’t become attached to him. She didn’t go down with his ship, you know? And she’s maintained sort of what her job is.

Now, I mean, there’s going to be challenges coming up. Even just a couple weeks ago, it was maybe last week or the week before, when Governor Rauner announced his budget and he said he wants to take the pension pickup away from Chicago Public Schools. Well, this will leave a big hole in the Chicago Public Schools’ budget, hundreds of millions. Now coming into this, one of the advantages that she had is that Forrest had, I mean, say what you may about his tenure, I mean, he dealt with a lot of financial issues, he pushed back against the state, and they won some victories. Now if she now wakes up and says okay, now I have to start cutting because I have this hole, well, I think that ends the honeymoon pretty quickly.”

Karp tells us about a recent story she wrote for WBEZ about Hope High School. “When I first started covering CPS, which was like 15, 17 years ago, it was known as a good school on the South Side. And I remember going there. You know who was the principal? Mahalia Hines. Mahalia Hines was the principal that brought that school into being good. And one of the first people I met there was a guy named Chip Johnson. Well, now Chip Johnson is the head of CPS outreach. He is the guy that is presiding over the school closing hearings, closing a school that is very dear to his heart.”

Today, according to Karp, of the 638 high-school aged students who live in Hope’s neighborhood, 602 have elected to leave. But that doesn’t tell the full story. The Englewood kids have scattered all over the city, while other children, mostly people with special education needs, have pooled in the school. Special Ed now serves more than half  of the population. And those former Hope kids? They’re in a mix of alternative schools, charters and traditional neighborhood schools – in other neighborhoods.

“In fact only 8% go to selective enrollment schools,” Karp explains. “And I can tell you from looking at the data that very, very few are actually at the Peytons and the Joneses and the really, really good schools. Most of the kids that are in selective enrollment schools are in places like King High School, South Shore High School. These are good selective enrollment schools, but they’re not like the stars of the system….So not many are getting to really, really tremendously better schools.” But they’re having to leave their neighborhoods to get even that incremental improvement.

And meanwhile at Hope High School, which will remain open for another three years because the community insisted on it, the former bustling, championship-winning school is a distant memory. “I mean, would you want your child in a school that doesn’t have much of anything? I mean, not even like—you talk about electives. Like let’s not even talk about after school. Let’s just talk about can you take German, Spanish, French, or…no. You can take Spanish online. That’s it. That’s your choice. That’s it. I mean, gym online. Online gym.

“You know, this is the thing, Karp says. “Some of this is about the kids. You know, you can change the school’s structure. But kids are coming with their socioeconomic backgrounds and educating them is a difficult job.”

“I remember a series that I edited that Jody Becker did for WBEZ back in the late ‘90s about Orr High School,” Schaper recalls. “And she embedded in Orr High School, as it went through one of these transformations and the difficulty of really changing a culture. You can change the staff all you want, and to some degree the challenges that the students are facing remain the same. And resources always becomes a question. And these schools, you know, they kind of reinvent the same problems, in some way, and not the solutions.”

Karp tells us about a recent report issued by the Inspector General for CPS. He found widespread abuse of the system that’s supposed to allocate seats in the neighborhood schools more fairly.

“And so basically, you know, if you have extra space, you can open those seats up,” she explains. “But people are supposed to apply. There’s supposed to be a lottery. Then you get on a waiting list and maybe you get into the school.”

“But principals are sort of not using that process and using their own process. And what they’re doing is some of them are looking at attendance records to see if they want the kids. Some of them are looking at grades. Some of them are looking at whether the kid has been suspended. And why are they doing that? I mean, it makes perfect sense. Why would you take a kid that you don’t need to take if the kid has got attendance problems? Why would you do that?

“I feel like if Janice Jackson was truly honest,” Karp continues, “she would look in the face of the people in Englewood and say listen, you guys are the losers. Your schools are the losers. That’s all there is to it…And going back to the Inspector General’s report, where people are letting kids in, you know, through the side door. Why? Well, one’s incentive—so you have this disincentive to let in kids that are, you know, might drag down your ratings, but you also have this huge incentive because you need that money.”

“That money” refers to the CPS practice of budgeting each school by the number of children enrolled, rather than funding specific programs and services in the school. So if you’re a principal and you’re losing enrollment, you’re losing money.

“On behalf of those parents who still have kids in schools, I mourn the loss of or the undermining of the neighborhood school,” says Meyerson. “I mean, the historic neighborhood school is a place where parents in a neighborhood met one another…And now that they’re sending their kids elsewhere, those neighborhood ties don’t exist. They’re not being formed.

“From the outside looking in,” he explains, “the school ratings game seems like a scam. And I say this as the parent of three sons who are now grown and out of schools and who went to, I think, an excellent school, but one that consistently wound up dinged in the ratings because, in large case because it was a diverse school with a lot of kids with socioeconomic disadvantages.

“And they were getting, as far as I could tell, a great education, but they didn’t have the advantage. Their test scores weren’t what they needed to be. And the result was a great school that showed up in the ratings, the state ratings, as not a New Trier level school, or a Peyton level school. And I think that they feel misleading.”

 

So let’s talk about infrastructure. What, under the proposed Trump infrastructure plan, would be the toll from, say the Edens Junction to downtown on the Kennedy?

“If that was tolled, it could be three, four, five bucks,” deadpans Schaper. It’s the president’s ‘pay as you go” federal concept that, having no money of its own, proposes to sell the expressways to investors, who would fix them and recoup their payments – and a profit – from user fees.

“This Trump infrastructure plan is a $1.5 trillion plan that actually has no actual money,” Schaper explains. “The President talks about, and has proposed, 200 billion coming from the federal government, but he doesn’t identify where that money comes from. And his aides have said, well, we envision budget cuts elsewhere that would—in the federal budget—that would provide extra money that we could then shift to infrastructure at the rate of $20 billion a year, so we keep whittling it down. It’s oh, it’s 1.5 trillion. Well, it’s really 200 billion. Oh, that’s over ten years, so that’s 20 billion a year…The way they get to some of that cost savings elsewhere in the federal budget, a $750 million cut to Amtrak. Huge cuts to transit programs, particularly capital grants that transit systems around the country, including here in Chicago, are in desperate need of. And the end result is, well then how much new money is really going in?

So that’s the other part of the Trump infrastructure plan – cutting 3/4 billion from Amtrak and other legacy public transit systems.

“The big concern I hear from a lot of people,” Schaper concludes, “is there could be widespread disparities then, projects that—projects that can generate revenue—will get funded. And those improvements that could help, you know, provide new transit options for people in underserved communities – may not.”

And in other good news for the president, Sinclair, the broadcast chain that’s made a name for itself promoting the policies of Donald Trump during its newscasts could be about to gain control of all the Tribune television stations, with the possible exception of WPIX in NYC and Chicago’s Own WGN. But there’s a wrinkle.

“Well,” explains Meyerson, “buying it and then selling it off. To a friend. And apparently, Robert Feder noted this morning, apparently they would continue to operate it, but they wouldn’t own it. So it seems like a difference without a distinction. And we should mention that WGN radio is also in the mix, the one radio station owned by Tribune Media…What becomes of WGN television under such a company, whether it owns it or whether it manages it? I think it’s a legitimate question, a legitimate concern, given the historic role that WGN television and radio have played in, you know, the civic discussion of this city.”

And finally, Block Club Chicago. It debuted with a huge splash last week when fans of the predecessor site, DNAInfo, pledged $130,000 in a couple of days to its Kickstarter.

“You know, I think they’re off to a good start,” Meyerson enthuses. “Anything can happen. And once you have content, and once you have an audience, which $130,000 will buy you, enough to get started and begin to build an audience, I think you can begin to develop other revenue streams, continuing membership fees or contributions, an advertiser base. I still think the digital advertising business, the local digital advertising business, is in for a shakeup and a reinvention. There’s money there, and I think it can be tapped by smart organizations.”

“The question is do they have business people really involved,” Karp wonders. “Because the people I know involved are mostly the reporter people. And, you know, even when you look at like the Chicago News Cooperative from I don’t know how long ago that was, which, you know, was a local entity, I think one of their problems was they didn’t have business people.”

“And they didn’t have digitally savvy content people, either,” Meyerson counters. “These guys know they have built an audience at DNAinfo. They understand what works.That’s a big difference, too.”

Schaper, our guest from NPR, says he’s still on board with non-commercial. “I’m not totally convinced that the nonprofit model can’t work,” he asserts. “There’s some way to marry the two together that you are providing sale, services, advertising, in a way. But, you know, public broadcasting has survived. Public radio is doing better than ever.”

And as the conversation winds down, all four panelists agree that, no matter what, you’ve gotta have good content first.

You can listen to this program on SoundCloud Here.

And you can read a full transcript HERE:CN transcript Feb 22 2018

 

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CN February 15 2018

Susana Mendoza, our state’s Comptroller, has emerged as one of Bruce Rauner’s most vocal opponents. And she wasn’t impressed with yesterday’s budget speech. She also tells us that she’s still strongly in JB’s corner, and she thinks the Quinn/Hampton mess has taught Speaker Madigan some lessons. “I think this is a…he’s had better days, put it that way,” she tells us.

You can watch the full show by clicking the video above.

You can listen to the show on SoundCloud.

You can read full transcript of the show here:CN transcript Feb 15 2018

 

Below are some selected highlights from this show, which was recorded Thursday Feb. 15 at 10:45 AM.

 

Reaction to Gov. tuner’s Feb 14 budget speech

Ken: Sen. Cullerton says he thinks the proposed budget’s out of balance by 1.5 billion.

Mendoza:     I think at least by one and a half billion. It’s…I believe it’s far more than that. It’s clearly not balanced, so let’s just start with that. I mean, for the governor to even pretend that this budget is balanced is again just…honestly, I don’t know how to say this nicely, but it’s like living in a fantasyland. It may be balanced in his head, but that’s the only place on earth. And again, at the end of the day you have to understand that you cannot balance a budget with just wishful thinking, with, you know, pixie dust or magic beans. You actually have to crunch the numbers, right?

I mean, his stuff doesn’t make any sense. And ultimately, you can’t tell the taxpayers that you’re gonna reduce their tax load without being willing to say where you would cut to make up for the difference in the lost revenue…He’s already tried that. It blew a $5 billion hole in our budget when that tax expired, yet the governor continued to spend as if that tax revenue was still coming in. And then just blames everybody else for the state’s fiscal problems, when in fact they’re his fault.

Reaction to Gov. Rauner’s plan shifting pension payments to local school districts

You’d have to be crazy to think that the Democrats and the Republicans are going to have enough votes to even move forward with a piece of legislation like that, because frankly, the greatest critics of his own legislation are the Republican members of his chamber, who he would normally have to rely on as at least a base to get started on any legislation.

And, you know, just based on the reaction of what I heard, forget about my opinion, the Democrats and the Republicans were leading the charge against Governor Rauner yesterday saying that he wants to hike people’s property taxes up, you know, dramatically. That’s dead on arrival. And it’s not dead on arrival even because the Democrats don’t work with the governor. It’s dead on arrival because his own party…will never let that happen.

Reaction to question about how Rauner will co-operate with Trump on the federal infrastructure initiative

Representative McSweeney actually was in Washington and even doubled down on realizing that there’s really been very little to no communication between the Rauner administration and the Washington folks to actually bring those transportation dollars here. So it was a real, real interesting moment in the speech when he said oh, we’ve been working hard and we’re ready to pull the trigger on this transportation thing.

And I turned to look at Representative McSweeney just because I thought, oh, that is the biggest whopper that has maybe come out so far. And you could see him like squirming in his chair, like that is so not true! But we have a governor who just really has an inability to…to accept responsibility for any wrongdoing, who has the inability to, frankly, just tell the truth to the public.

You know, he spouts these things off as if they’re true. And, you know, I just hope that by now, after four years of hearing this, the public is just smarter and can understand that the governor just can’t tell the truth. I mean, he’ll lie to a cardinal to his face and…and then pretend he didn’t. And so that’s who we have, and we need a new governor.

Reaction to Gov. Rauner’s proposals for Higher Ed funding

Governor Rauner has, you know, reduced funding to higher ed by 60%, 30% in his first year alone. And then we starved—he starved the state universities over the last two and a half years with that budget impasse… Meanwhile, because of Governor Rauner’s reticence on getting a budget done, those universities, five of our state universities, went into deep junk bond territory…And it’s gonna take them years to crawl out of it. And now he’s talking about, well, we should just get rid of some of these universities and consolidate them. If that was your plan, then you should actually put forth a plan, not just starve them to death and then have no other option, right? There are options. We need to invest more in higher education.

 

Reaction to recordings of JB Pritzker and Rod Blagojevich discussing  a possible appointment to fill Barack Obama’s vacant Senate Seat, and Mendoza’s continued support forPritzker

Ken:                You’re not deterred by these developments with the Blago tapes?

00:45:09

Susana:            Well, I think, for example, to me the one that was…I felt like disappointed on was the one with Jesse White. And I feel it’s a terrible choice of words. But I also feel that J.B. has a lifetime of advocacy and championing causes that are important to that very community, along with so many others, right?            Just what he’s done alone with early childhood education in preparing like Hispanic and African American kids to be able to compete with all the other children. Nobody has led on that issue, even nationally, as much as J.B. Pritzker has. School breakfast for kids—

Ken:                Interestingly, you’re doing a little bit better job selling it than he is, I would have to say.

Susana:            Well, I don’t know, but I’m just telling you why I still support him. And I think that what he did was, you know, an unfortunate use of words, but it doesn’t represent who he is as a person and what his entire life’s product has been. And I think that should weigh more heavily on voters when they’re looking at candidates than, you know, a less than stellar moment for him, right?

Here’s the other point that I’d like to say about that in particular, is that unlike Governor Rauner—and I think it’s important to compare the two, right, ‘cause they’re both running against each other and might ultimately be who is facing off—as much as you can be disappointed about what happened on that tape, J.B. Pritzker acknowledges that it was one of his worst moments, probably, and that he takes full responsibility, and it was a sincere apology, and he has been working hard to make things better.

And that is perhaps my biggest gripe against Governor Rauner, is that no matter what goes wrong in the state of Illinois, no matter what he’s done to actually single-handedly make these bad things happen, he’s never acknowledged any fault in anything. Like he is unwilling, he has a chronic inability to accept responsibility for any wrongdoing or any of the damage that he’s inflicted on the state.

And so as much as it’s not a stellar moment—I would say it was embarrassing and painful for J.B.—from my perspective it was nice to see that he actually owned up to it and that he’s really sincerely apologized and is gonna learn from that mistake. Because if you don’t even acknowledge that you made a mistake, how can you ever learn from that and fix it moving forward?

I’m the first person to say I’m not perfect, he’s not, and nobody should expect any of us to be perfect. I think we should always try to hold ourselves to a higher standard than, you know, your average taxpayers because we’re asking for their trust. But at the same time, we’re not perfect. The key thing here, though, is that when you do make a mistake, are you big enough, in his case is he man enough, to own it and to try to fix it and to never make that mistake again? And I think he certainly is.

Ken:                You think he’d make a better governor than Biss or Kennedy?

Susana:            I think he’ll make a…I think he’d be the best governor. This is why I’m supporting him versus the other candidates. And I think they’re all good men, so I would say on the Democratic side of the ticket, I mean, look at Bob Daiber. He’s probably one of the best people you’ll ever meet in your life, you know.

But who do I think—and I think that maybe, perhaps, my opinion, which I certainly don’t want to oversell to your public—but if anyone has had an up close and personal look at the devastation that Bruce Rauner has caused for our state, it’s me in my capacity as the state’s chief fiscal officer. I deal with it every single day. And so you better believe that I’ve been working very hard over the last year, and we’ve accomplished amazing successes in a short amount of time.

00:48:04          I want to fix the state of Illinois. And I…I decided to get behind the person who I think will be ready to actually lead on day one, who will be able to build the coalitions necessary to… And that means not just Democrats, but Republicans, too, right, that can actually bring people to the table where we’re all acting like adults, not kids, which is kind of what we’ve seen in Springfield, and…and get the job done.

He’s a business guy, but he’s not saying that we should run government like a business. He’s not the Bruce Rauner business model. Bruce Rauner built his wealth by taking over struggling businesses and firing thousands of people. J.B. has created businesses in Illinois. He’s the only candidate actually running for governor that has a history and a track record of actually building businesses and letting other people be self-sufficient, right, and provide for their families and so forth.

So I think, you know, he brings a lot to the table, and he’s a really good person. And while it wasn’t his best moment on that tape, I’ve seen so many really incredible, sincere, good moments from J.B., and I expect to see a whole lot more when he’s our governor.

 

Reaction to revelations that Alania Hampton accused her supervisor in Mike Madigan’s office of sexual harassment

Susana:            I think it’s great that Miss Hampton came forward. I do, you know, you have to wonder why does an investigation take three months, right? But I don’t know. I wasn’t privy to that investigation. I do know, though, that the final product of firing this guy, without question, was the right move.

What I do think, though, is that this is a situation that all of us, as executives, have to look at, and look within our own organizations and see what can we do better. Because clearly the disconnect here was that this young lady had to go to the alderman to talk about a difficult situation because there was no other process in place to actually deal with issues of sexual harassment. And I don’t think that that’s unique to the Speaker’s situation here. That’s…you could say that about every elected official, every political organization, and every executive at any level, both public and private.

So I think all of us—and one thing that will definitely, I’m sure, come out of this scenario with the speaker is that I would believe that it’s incumbent upon him to crack down on this and to come forth with a plan on how political committees should operate in this new environment. It’s not a new environment in that this hasn’t happened before, but it’s a new environment in that everybody’s talking about it, and people feel more empowered about bringing forth these allegations. And so they should have like a way to follow my allegation, right? Like if I accuse someone of doing something to me, I don’t want to be like waiting in the wind for three or five or six months, because then I feel like no one’s really taking me seriously.

Ken:                Well—

Susana:            I’d like to have…there needs to be a process in place that you can follow that you feel like your allegation is being taken seriously, because it needs to be. And then number two, like you’re informed throughout this process.

Ken:                Yeah.

Susana:            And I think that there was a massive lack of—

Ken:                Well, that’s—

Susana:            —communication.

Ken:                —that’s the…that’s the issue here, isn’t it? Because Miss Hampton, I mean, certainly there’s no question about the fact she was…she was a Madigan ally.

Susana:            Yeah, no doubt.

Ken:                I mean, she was wholly in this thing.

Susana:            Sure.

Ken:                And she felt that she had to resign because things were so uncomfortable.

Susana:            Yeah, yeah.

Ken:                And she accuses Madigan of running out the clock.

Susana:            Yeah.

Ken:                So she’s…she believes that he’s done her wrong.

Susana:            Yeah. I mean, clearly she does.

Ken:                And that’s one of his closest allies that is saying that.

Susana:            Clearly she does. And again, I think because—

Ken:                So I’ll ask again. Is he—

Susana:            —there was no process in place.

Ken:                —is he vulnerable?

00:54:01

Susana:            I think this is a…he’s had better days, put it that way. So I think everybody’s vulnerable. I don’t think it’s just the speaker. I think this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Ken:                Do you think he’ll be able to ride this out, this one?

Susana:            I do, because I think the speaker will learn from this, and he’ll put, you know, measures in place to make sure that it never happens in his organization. But I also think that as a result of that lots of other elected officials in both parties will be probably looking at how they can make their climates more conducive to people coming forward and knowing that there’s a path to monitoring what’s happening. So this is one of those, you know, teachable moments. And unfortunately Miss Hampton had to be the victim in here, and feels doubly victimized. But the bigger question is what are we gonna do to fix it? And—

Ken:                What should they do to fix it? We only have like a minute. But what should they do?

Susana:            Well, they’ve got to put some major teeth into processes, right? Like so in our office we’re looking at revamping even what we do have, which, we do have a process in place, but can we do better? And I think that everybody’s gonna have to do that. It’s not just at the speaker’s level. It has to be all of us that take responsibility for this as well.

 

 

 

 

 

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CN Feb 8 2018 Ed Zotti

 

On Monday, the City accepted four proposals from consortiums of companies interested in building a transit link between downtown Chicago and O’Hare airport. Mayor Emanuel expressed great pleasure about the amount of interest shown in the proposed project, and reiterated his assertion that no taxpayer money would be used to build the line.

We talked this week with noted transit expert Ed Zotti (who still moonlights after four decades as editor and general assistant to Cecil Adams, the World’s Smartest Human and proprietor of the Reader’s Straight Dope column.)

Zotti thinks there’s a good possibility some kind of “express” service will be built.

“I think they will,” he predicted. “I think the chances of making it work on multiple levels are better than people think. And I don’t want to put money on it, but I think it can go ahead as the City expects in the sense that number one, it will get you down fast. Number two, the fare won’t be crazy, and number three, it can get done at some reasonable period of time. And number four, most important of all it won’t cost the City any money.

Of course, we cynics find it difficult to ever accept the idea that something will be built without taxpayer money getting  in the pipeline at some point, but Zotti says it could work as a private-sector investment, and it also could spur some serious re-thinking of transit options that connect to it.

“Once you put in this major piece of infrastructure,” he asserts, “you suddenly have to think what goes in at either end? How does it connect to everything else we’ve got, and a bunch of stuff that people have been talking about, that I personally have been talking about for quite a number of years, suddenly start to think how are we going to make it all fit together? Now is the opportunity. You’re going to make major investments. You’ve got to do some major rearrangements and things. If you’re going to do anything ever now is that time.”

Zotti’s especially heartened by the quality and experience of some of the companies that submitted proposals. They include Amtrak, for example, and companies with extensive experience building infrastructure for the CTA.

But he’s not expecting the City to go along with the Elon Musk idea for a high-speed tunnel. That technology, he says, is at least 20 years away. A surface line, though, using some existing right-of-way, might be the answer, he says.

“Can you do it in 20 minutes?” he asks. ” Can you do it in – are there a lot of grade crossings? I don’t know, but it’s not a crazy thing to ask for. It’s not like you have to build a tunnel.”

Zotti is bullish on Chicago’s near-term future, and he says the trends would seem to support the O’Hare line and the associated transit infrastructure it could make possible.

“We have the fastest growing downtown in the country, I don’t want to sound like City administration here, but it’s true, in terms of population we’re at record highs in terms of employment. Downtown Chicago, the core, the central area, accounts for more than half of jobs in the City of Chicago. The first time probably in the history of the City that’s ever been the case. So that’s what’s working, and you want to play to that, and it’s the downtown jobs…I mean there’s a lot of jobs for a lot of people at a whole range of income and skill levels. So the fact that downtown Chicago becomes more viable as a business center is a good thing for a lot of people. And even if you yourself never in a million years would pay 30 or 25-bucks or whatever it is to ride a train, the fact that it’s there and other people do is a good thing for you potentially.”

In the near term, though the CTA is facing some serious drop-off in ridership.

“Rail as dropped off a lot,” he reports. “I’ve written extensively about this. Between 1992, which was the low point, and 2015 rail rose virtually every year. Bus has been up and down. Bus, let me be frank, is in long-term decline. I mean 50 years ago it was 600-million rides a day and now it’s down. It’s heading down to 200-million.”

The irony is that downtown employment continues to rise, but rail traffic is declining.

I think it’s pretty safe to say that as downtown employment goes up rail ridership goes up, because it’s the easiest way to get downtown. 2015 that very clear-cut process came to a halt. Employment continued to go up, but total rail ridership went down. What clearly was happening in my opinion was the Uber-effect. There were other things at work. Gas prices were at historically low levels…But the people who take the journey to work on the L continues to rise at a steady pace as one would expect, given the fact that downtown employment continues to go up. What is probably happening is that non-work trips are in decline…And just anecdotally, the CTA will tell you that evening traffic seems to be off. Weekend traffic which is counted separately obviously is way off, as much as 20% on some lines.

So people seem to be using Uber as an alternative to rail when they’re not going directly downtown, or when the streets are less congested, or for an evening/weekend short rip to recreation, etc, when an Uber/Lyft ride from the front door to a bar or social event can cost only a little more than the CTA.

Zotti predicts that CTA rail will always be viable whenever the expressways are clogged with traffic.

“If you can carry large volumes of people despite the fact that you’ve got street congestion, that’s a reason for people to ride your service. And that’s what’s propelled the growth of the rail service in Chicago for more than 20 years. And it went up, what my research established was that it went up in lock step with services employment in the core.”

But great change is ahead. A new generation is remaking the city center as not only a place to work and play, but also to live. And although we may not know how these trends will affect mass transit, we know even less about how it will affect the driving of personal cars.

“I was at a fascinating seminar about a year ago talking about what people plan to build now versus (then), like a parking structure,” Zotti explains. “You build a big commercial complex you’ve got to have a huge amount of parking structure.  The architects now are telling people figure out a way to reuse this space.”

In other words, build a building you can re-purpose, rathe than demolish when you won’t need it any more.

“Ten years down the road, exactly, because you’re not going to need anywhere this much space for parking, a fascinating story,” he says. “So have shallow spaces. Have enough depth that you can put air-conditioning ducts and that kind of stuff in.

So expect to see garages without extensive ramps, and with higher floors. Buildings that could easily be flipped to offices or labs or warehouses.

A recent passion of Zotti’s has been attempting to re-ignite a conversation about extending transit into and through the parts of downtown that have almost no public transit.

“I was with Central Area Committee,” he tells us, “and we proposed in 2016 something we were calling the Connector, which is, I’m trying to draw you a picture of where it went, but it was going to serve many of the same areas on the periphery of the traditional loop. It would connect the rail stations, the Metra stations to the CTA, which right now are very poorly connected. I mean if you go to New York, Washington, Boston, you can take the suburban rail system in and there is a station right there, and we don’t have that. You’ve got to walk blocks if you can even find it. So I think those things need to happen, and that’s what I think the value of this express to O’Hare will be. Once we get that in place,” he says, it can be a trigger ” To get everything else going.”

 

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